Thursday, August 10, 2017

One Hundred and Thirty

We are limited beings; limited in space and in time. Cogito, ergo sum, said Descartes, and the first time I remember thinking – the first time I became aware of myself as a thinking being – I was asking why I’m limited to being this person, in this place, thinking this thought.

I wasn’t asking why I wasn’t someone else, somewhere else, thinking something else. I was acutely aware of being myself, and knowing that self was more than it appeared to be.     

I knew that, like Whitman, I contained multitudes. I was also part of a multitude, one cell in a body composed of cells. But if the microcosm mirrors the macrocosm, tat tvam asi, why was I aware of being only this cell, and not others? 

Easterners say the self is an illusion. Westerners say the same thing, though they don’t realize they’re saying it. All Western philosophy is a footnote to Plato, said Whitehead, and Plato said change is an illusion - only that which is eternal is real - therefore we, who exist for only a limited time, in a specific place, aren’t real.

I’ve always known this is true, and false. Everything is true in one context, and false in another. What we say is changed by how we say it.

As I grew older, I became aware that other people didn’t seem to know this.

Their existence wasn’t a puzzle to them, as mine was to me. Americans seemed to believe that who and what they are is self-evident. Emigrés, who struggle to translate what they know from one language into another without falsifying it, know better.

We know nothing, or as near to nothing that the difference hardly seems to matter; yet that difference, like the 1% difference in DNA between other primates and us, makes us human.

The most ignorant among us are those who don’t know they’re ignorant. Or rather they pretend not to know it. They tell themselves that if they don’t know everything, they know everything worth knowing, and presume to teach the rest of us what they think they know. These fools fool no one except other fools.    

These thoughts were inspired by an article in the latest issue of the LRB, which arrived today.

The article’s about Facebook, the most famous, because most successful, of the websites purporting to be virtual communities providing virtual friends for people like me, who have no real friends.  

They're successful because there are no real communities now. “'There is no such thing as society”, announced Baroness Thatcher, telling us what we already knew (Politicians are among the people ignorant enough to believe they know everything worth knowing, so they always learn things long after everyone else does). "There are only individuals". And she told the truth. She, and people like her, destroyed what little was left of society, leaving only the market, in which individuals buy and sell each other.

The article calls Facebook the greatest information gathering tool in history; but that information isn’t the so-called news which it delivers to its members. That information is mostly propaganda and rumor. It’s the information Facebook gathers about its members, their likes and dislikes, and sells to advertisers, which makes its employees millionaires. 

Online social media do this more efficiently than the print media they’re replacing, but both do it. Newspapers and magazines don’t make money by selling information to their readers, but by selling information about their readers to their advertisers.

Online social media aren’t successful because they’re reliable sources of information. They're successful because they pretend to be communities. People turn to these websites because they hunger for the real communities that no longer exist; and they keep returning to them, like addicts returning to their drugs, because that hunger is never satisfied.

What most people crave isn’t information, much less the truth, but community. We’re social animals, as are all primates; but our society teaches us to be anti-social, to invent an individual self that’s not just indifferent, but actively hostile, to the other individuals of which our community is composed.

Or rather it used to teach us to be actively hostile to others, to see them as our competitors in a war of all against all. Now it teaches us to compete passively, consumers asking our masters to do for us what we can't and/or won't do for ourselves, like children competing for their parents' attention. Either way, we are selfish children who refuse to unite and work together for the common good, which allows our masters to do what they please to us. They rob us, and we are their accomplices.

The turning point in Facebook’s early history, according to the article, came when Silicon Valley billionaire Peter Thiel invested $500,000 in the company. 

In college Theil majored in philosophy, and believed in Girard’s theory of mimetic desire.

According to the article, Girard said that when our need for the necessities of life, such as food and shelter, are satisfied, we look to the other members of our community to see what they have that we might want. The author says “We don’t know what we want or who we are; we don’t really have values and beliefs of our own; what we have instead is an instinct to copy and compare”. 

Theil saw Facebook as mimetic desire in action. Its members don’t know what they want, so they look at their online 'friends' to see what they have, and decide they want it, too.

I haven’t read Girard since I was a child, but this seems to me not entirely false. Neither is it entirely true.

It was obvious to me, even when I was a child, that Girard’s theory of mimetic desire was itself an example of mimetic desire, his response to Freud’s theory of the Oedipus complex. Both describe a triangular relationship between two males and a female, presumably the nuclear family of father, mother and son.

In Freud’s version, mother and infant son are one. The infant sees no distinction between his body and his mother’s, until he becomes aware of his father as his rival for her. Then, and only then, does the infant become aware of himself as a separate individual – separate from his mother, who belongs to his father.

In Girard’s version, self-awareness comes at a later stage in the child’s development. The son becomes aware of himself by comparing himself to his father, who is not his rival, but his ideal. He admires and respects his father, and wants to be like him. That includes having a woman like his father’s woman.

It was obvious to me, even when I was a child, that neither Freud’s nor Girard’s theory was entirely true nor entirely false. They seem true, or false, only to those who think one or the other could be true, but not both.

People don’t know who and what they want because they don’t know who and what they are. They also don’t know their society well enough to know what it is – what they can reasonably expect from it, and what they must do to get it.

They also don’t realize their needs change as they change. The last thing a person with a full stomach needs is more food, but most people are now obese because they don’t know what they need or want. Food satisfied their hunger at mealtime, so they keep eating.

I'm tired of eating. I know this society has nothing that can satisfy my hunger.

One Hundred and Twenty Nine

The threat to what we used to call civilization was never the barbarians at the gate. They always saved civilization.

Dazzled by its glitter, barbarians were always seduced into becoming civilized, learning to worship the city’s god and obey those who ruled it in his name. Rulers welcomed barbarians if they came at a time when those who know them best, their slaves, were losing faith in them. The ruler who said his people had failed him by rebelling, so it was time he replaced them with new people, spoke for all rulers.

A ruler must educate his people to understand his orders well enough to carry them out efficiently, but not well enough to question those orders. War is his best means of securing their unquestioning obedience.    

War unites rulers and ruled against a common external enemy, preventing people from realizing their real enemies are their parasitic rulers. And having suffered and died for a cause they’re told is noble, people are reluctant to admit they’ve been gulled.  

The people now fleeing the Middle East pose no threat to what we used to call Western civilization. They're not barbarians, but prosperous, educated Muslims who can afford to bribe the West's gatekeepers to let them in, while ordinary Muslims stay home and try to dodge the West's bombs; and they no more believe in Islam's god than educated Christians and Jews believe in theirs. The real threat to what we used to call civilization is, and always has been, people clever enough to realize it’s a Potemkin village, and angry enough at having been gulled to tear it down, but not clever enough to build something real in its place. Today’s slaves have lost faith in what we used to call civilization, as have we all; but now there are no barbarians at the gate, ready to take their place. 

Tuesday, August 8, 2017

One Hundred and Twenty Eight

While on a movie website, I came across a prison movie. It reminded me that Hollywood doesn’t make prison movies any more, just as it doesn’t make western movies any more. Outer space is the new frontier, as the Star Trek intro says; but nothing’s replaced the prison movie.

Most of them were bad, but even the worst prison movie was more complex than the average western. The best westerns rose above cowboys and indians clichés, but they were few. Every prison movie dealt with the same themes as Kafka and Dostoevsky.    

The great prison narratives are novels, but even in Hollywood prison movies there was always the feeling that the society outside the prison, which the prisoners remember and dream about, is only a dream. Reality is the prison.

In bad prison movies, the protagonist was innocent. Either he’d been ‘set up’ by the person who actually committed the crime of which he’d been convicted, or he was the victim of an unjust legal system. The latter implied that the society outside the prison was just as bad as the one inside, while the former attributed all the evil to one specific villain and absolved society as a whole of any responsibility for his villainy.  

In the worst prison movies, the protagonist was a cop or some other agent of the law who'd gone into prison ‘under cover’ in order to expose the brutal conditions there, conditions which people outside the prison supposedly know nothing about. Often its evil was the fault of a corrupt warden, and after he was exposed and arrested all was well.

In the best prison movies, the protagonist was guilty. He didn’t pretend to be innocent, and was ready to accept his punishment until he discovered that the agents of the law, who'd judged and convicted him, were even worse criminals than he was.

No one is innocent. There are only different degrees of guilt. The great criminals make this world what it is, and the petty criminals are their accomplices, including all those who know what they do but do nothing to stop them.

Everyone knows, and everyone pretends not to know. Everyone pretends to be innocent. They must, because they no longer believe in a god who'll forgive them anything as long as they believe in him.   

Sunday, August 6, 2017

One Hundred and Twenty Seven

To love without wanting to possess the beloved. To be ready to lose her; because sooner or later we do lose her.

To love life without wanting to possess it. To be ready to lose it; because sooner or later we do lose it.  

I used to know how to do this. I used to do it well. But I’ve lived too long - or too much – to love anyone or anything now.

Wednesday, August 2, 2017

One Hundred and Twenty Six

I’ve finished rereading Wallerstein’s book. 

His insights are a useful corrective to neo-Marxism, but they don’t constitute a separate and unique theory, as he imagines. His world system theory, like Darwin’s theory of evolution, has so many precursors that I wonder they were ever controversial. But we’re capable of holding only a limited number of ideas in our minds, and keep forgetting them, so that each new generation restates the same old ideas in new and different words and imagines they’re the first to think of them.

Wallerstein says changing the world system through reform and/or revolution only becomes possible in times of crisis. This is merely Gould’s and Eldredge’s theory of evolutionary change as punctuated equilibrium applied to social change; and both are merely narrower versions of Prigogine’s theory of change in hydrodynamic, chemical and biological systems. Prigogine’s version is not only the precursor, but the most inclusive, which seems to justify the low opinion physical scientists have of social scientists.

Wallerstein wrote this book in the ‘60s, when he'd persuaded himself that the soixante-huitards were genuine revolutionaries who would change society for the better. As a member of that generation, I saw it was an illusion. Society was indeed in crisis, as it had been for generations; but the socialist revolution failed to save it. All that remained was fascist counter-revolution.

We're all fascists now, more than half in love with easeful death. We're all dying, and glad of it. The moment we’re born we begin to die. That alone is true. Everything else is illusion. We can’t live with that truth always in our minds, so we keep forgetting it.                      

Wednesday, July 5, 2017

One Hundred and Twenty Five

I’m wasting what little time I have left.

Of course I am. We’re all wasting our time. None of us is doing what we should be. But this assumes there’s something we should be doing.

Camus said there’s only one serious philosophical question: is life worth living? Once we decide what we should be doing, we have a reason for living and suicide is no longer an option.

What should I be doing? This question troubled me when I was a child. I knew that, in theory, something is better than nothing; but in practice, knowing that if this world should ever become too terrible for me to bear, I could end it, always consoled me.

The pain of others always troubled me more than my own because I could endure my own, but I could do nothing to help them endure theirs. I sat by the dying and watched them cling to lives I wouldn’t want, and decided my mission would be to help others, making their lives worth living so their deaths wouldn’t be meaningless. But I failed.

Worst of all, I failed the person I loved most. She trusted me, but I couldn’t save her from the doctors who butchered her.

I knew, when I was a child, that this world is terrible. And now it's worse. The day is coming when the living will envy the dead. Better to die young. Best is never to have been born.

Saturday, July 1, 2017

One Hundred and Twenty Four

Another false alarm.

The doctor said I’d have to be hospitalized if my condition didn’t improve. I have no intention of dying in hospital, so once again I prepared to kill myself; but now my condition is improving. I’ve even begun taking daily walks again.

But while my body soldiers on, my brain continues dying. I felt the prefrontal cortex go numb after she died, and now the top of my head, the cortex , feels numb.

Leonard is also preparing for death, sending family memorabilia he’s saved over the years to relatives  who probably throw it away.

He keeps saying he has only two more years. He doesn’t want to die alone, at home, so he intends to move in with one of his relatives.

Family means everything to him, but I doubt his relatives feel the same, so I wondered if any of them would agree to take him in. I underestimated him.

He’s chosen to live with his nephew Eric, who recently lost his job, his house and his wife, and is now working as a bartender and living in a room above the bar. I’m sure Eric will jump at the chance to share living expenses with an uncle who receives two pensions: one from the city, and another from the navy.

I don’t want to die alone any more than Leonard does, and considered suggesting to him that he move in with me (or I with him). Apparently he anticipated this, because lately he’s been making disparaging remarks about friendship. Friends can’t be relied on, he says. Only family.

Piecemeal the body dies, and the timid soul
has her footing washed away, as the dark flood rises.

We are dying, we are dying, we are all of us dying
and nothing will stay the death-flood rising within us
soon it will rise on the world, on the outside world.

We are dying, we are dying, piecemeal our bodies are dying
and our strength leaves us,
and our soul cowers naked in the dark rain over the flood,
cowering in the last branches of the tree of our life.

We are dying, we are dying, so all we can do now
is be willing to die, and build the ship of death 
to carry the soul on the longest journey.

A little ship, with oars and food
and little dishes, and all accoutrements
fitting and ready for the departing soul.

Now launch the small ship, now, as the body dies
and life departs, launch the fragile soul
in the fragile ship of courage, the ark of faith
with its store of food and little cooking pans
and change of clothes,
upon the flood's black waste
upon the waters of the end
upon the sea of death, where still we sail
darkly, for we cannot steer, and have no port.

There is no port, there is now place to go,
only the deepening black darkening 
still blacker upon the soundless, ungurgling flood
darkness at one with darkness, up and down
and sideways utterly dark, so there is no direction any more

and the little ship is there; yet she is gone.
She is not seen, for there is nothing to see her by.
She is gone! gone! and yet
somewhere she is there.

And everything is gone, the body is gone
completely gone, entirely gone.
The upper darkness is as heavy as the lower,
and between them the little ship
is gone.
She is gone.

It is the end, it is oblivion.